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Charlayne Woodard Goes to War at LCT3

The Tony nominee stars in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins latest drama.

"I think you saw the show that we're actually going to hold on to," Charlayne Woodard says on the morning of June 2. "Yesterday was our last rehearsal, so you saw us trying on the actual show."

The show in question is War, the latest from Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the explosive dramatist behind An Octoroon, Appropriate, and the 2016 Pulitzer finalist Gloria. After premiering in 2014 at Yale Repertory Theatre, War comes to the Claire Tow Theater at LCT3 under the direction of Lileana Blain-Cruz.

Woodard, a Tony nominee for Ain't Misbehavin' and a veteran solo performer, joined the LCT3 production to play Roberta, a family matriarch felled by a stroke. At her bedside, her grown children bicker as they attempt to figure out the identities of two mysterious strangers from Germany who refuse to leave. In her own little world, Roberta tries to recall her life with the help of a nonverbal figure called Alpha.

"It's really challenging," she says of the play, "but isn't that what we want? As a veteran, I certainly want the challenges."

Charlayne Woodard plays Roberta in '"War'', the new play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.
(© Erin Baiano)

Tell me about your character, Roberta.
Roberta is very close to me. Roberta is a woman who grew up with privilege. She comes from that same place that a lot of us do. Our parents moved up from the south because it was too unbearable. They came here to make sure that their children had everything they were barred from. As a result, Roberta is into achieving, and her mother and father were also into family. They didn't have that.

It's a mother-daughter thing that Branden has brilliantly written: the mother who wants the daughter to do the things she didn't do, and she almost ruined the daughter. Out of the blue, someone [comes in and] says, "I am your sister." And Branden brings in the whole Brown Baby thing from Germany. Do you know about that?

Only with passing familiarity.
When the soldiers were over there [during World War II] and everyone was having relations with the German girls, those girls had babies. If they were brown, they put them immediately into institutions, and they treated them as if they were little animals. And [the character Elfrida] was raised like that.

What was it like when you read the play for the first time?
Actually, it was very different. I got the Yale Rep script, and Branden said on the first day, "Try not to memorize anything yet." We're like, "We've got three weeks!" But you know what? Everybody jumped on it, and I love that. It's very challenging, because of the structure of it, and finding that world my character lies in. I thought it was a simple story of a family. And then, as we keep going, you realize it's about race. But family seems to feel like the vehicle.

Charlayne Woodard (center) plays stage mom to Rachel Nicks and Chris Myers in War at the Claire Tow theater.
(© Jenny Anderson)

It's structurally deceptive; it starts off like a situation comedy, with a mother in a hospital bed, her two grown children bickering about her condition, and two strangers who they don't recognize claiming to be distant relatives. But then it takes a darker turn and the real play emerges.
That's what I thought when I first read it. He rewrote it on us. When we were in rehearsal, he would show up with a revelation. I've worked with people where, when the rewrites come, you say, "I wonder if these people even know what they're writing." But every time, it seemed like this play showed up to us. My character is on a journey. In the beginning, she feels a little like Alice in Wonderland: "What is happening?" And then it shows up, who I really am. That's the way it was in rehearsal.

For most of the play, you're onstage delivering long monologues to a silent character called Alpha. Has your experience with solo shows helped with your work here?
Oh, I think so. But this one is difficult. In that first act, I really am working with Alpha. To the audience it might feel like I'm working by myself, but I'm using him to keep going. It's a funny twist on my version of solo work, but Branden is using all the rules of solo work.

What do you want the audience to take away from the play?
I want them to have a peek in on the reality of our existence in this dominant culture. These families exist in abundance, with the generational issues that they have of what the young want to do and what the older people want them to do. This is another slice, another side, of how we are, how we think, how we've struggled, and what it takes to live in this world as an achieving human being. I think Branden is brilliant, and very brave. This kind of courage, to actually say what you need to say? And there it is at LCT3, which I love.

Lance Coadie Williams and Charlayne Woodard as Alpha and Roberta in War by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at the Claire Tow Theater.
(© Erin Baiano)